A masked ghost named Toothless, imprisoned in a Japanese playground with “a mind of its own”; a sandbox that brings your biggest fears to life; swings that take you into the presence of another person’s dreams; a slide that ages you if you move down it and puts you “back in diapers” if you climb up it; and disappearing children in the midst of multiple unsolved mysteries: all of these are elements of Antoine Revoy’s haunting Animus, a book the Kirkus review describes as “eerie,” “bewildering,” and “unnerving in the best way possible.”

Animus cover Toothless is confined to the darkly enchanted playground. “I was taken from my home and buried alive,” he tells Hisao and Sayuri, the two children who converse with him. “I can’t go to the afterworld unless I am found and released to the open air.” When one of the children’s friends falls victim to the slide and ends up hospitalized as an elderly man, Hisao and Sayuri determine to unravel the mystery of Toothless and find his body — all by way of investigating another gruesome crime in town.

I chatted via email with Revoy to ask him about this, his first full-length graphic novel in which nothing is what it seems and a playground curse haunts a town.

Jules: Hi, Antoine. Thanks for chatting with me about Animus. What was the genesis of this story for you? I know you lived in Japan, where this story is set, as a child, yes?

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Antoine: Hi, Jules. Thank you so much for having me.

I grew up in Japan, indeed (ages 6 to 12, from 1984 to 1989), though my family lived in Tokyo's Shibuya ward, whereas Animus is set in Kyoto. Its story was inspired by the many afternoons and evenings spent with my brother and sister in the local playground, as well as Japanese folktales, and a mask I purchased a few years ago representing Inari — the Shinto god of foxes — whose head shrine is in Kyoto.

Jules: Are Japanese comics or even manga part of the fabric of your inspirations? Did you read those as a child?

Antoine: I was and remain an insatiable reader of manga, through which I learned how to read and speak in Japanese. My drawings and pacing are quite visibly influenced by this background, but manga is not exactly a dominant inspiration, idea-wise. My work has been shaped by so many other things — folk tales, literature, film, music — which might be less stylistically explicit, but more connected to its substance.

Jules: I’m jumping way ahead here, but I have to say: I saw (actually, at the publisher’s page for this book) a Goodreads reviewer who wrote in all caps about the book’s ending: “…SOMEONE EXPLAIN IT TO ME. WHAT DID I READ.” This made me laugh out loud, and for the record, I took this as a compliment, as I myself was sort of haunted by the ending (that I don’t want to give away, all spoiler-like). I even passed the book around to my husband and daughters to get their thoughts on the matter. My daughters told me to ask you why Sayuri makes the choice she does, but I know better to ask an author that. Has the book been out long enough for you to get lots of questions about this?

Antoine:Ha. I did find that review quite amusing, too! And I hope that your husband and daughters enjoyed the book. …

Jules: Yes, all of the Danielsons enjoyed this story. We enjoyed that thought-provoking ending. There was much discussion.

Antoine: In the couple of months since Animus's publication, I have gotten many questions (or heard speculation) about the ending or Sayuri's general motivations. This shouldn't come as a surprise, since Sayuri is often misunderstood by other characters in the story as well. As a reader, I tend to enjoy stories that leave ample room for personal interpretation and that are not fully understood in a single read. However, as a writer there is a fine margin between offering an open-ended, resonant story and leaving the reader stranded. In my view it is our responsibility to offer a rich, fulfilling experience, and I certainly did not want to overreach and be too clever by half.

Hopefully, Animus's characters and worlds are inviting enough for readers to want to know more about them. If anyone is initially puzzled by particular aspects of the story, they can find clues and answers to many of the playground's mysteries upon additional readings.

Jules: So, here’s an art question: Your line work in this book is beautiful, and I love the palette (for the cover). Did you always know you wanted there to be no color between the covers?

Animus spread Antoine: Yes, [I knew] from the very outset of the project. I love working in full color, but I considered that this story would be better told in black and white, because it would give more emphasis to textures. Animus is about looking at things which are very familiar more closely, or in a different way (tree bark, stones, insects), so this was both a practical and esthetic choice.

Also, digital color art in comics and feature animation tends to skew toward more brightness and intensity than real-world lighting. This conveys a lot of drama and emotions via spectacular color-coding. However, quite often everything, down to the most mundane elements and environments, seems to be lit in an over-the-top, eye-catching way with LEDs, volcano eruptions, or lasers.

Drawing Animus monochromatically gave it a more modest "neutral" tone, and I thought that this visual restraint and economy would, by contrast with the intensity and drama of its events, convey more emotions and creepiness than a palette with bright, saturated hues. In a way, the reader is invited to participate more.

Jules: It just occurred to me this is your debut graphic novel. Did you enjoy the process? Are there more in you?

Antoine: I loved making Animus! I had written and drawn many self-published cartoon strips and comics in the past (I was in talks for working with manga publishers at age 16–17 but then decided to come to college in the U.S. instead), but it was a great new experience to work in this format — a self-contained story, in print, circa 200 pages long. I imagine that this is akin to going from film shorts or TV episodes to feature films. Since Animus has been completed, I have been developing several new scripts, most of them spooky tales. I can't wait to start production for the next one.

Jules: I look forward to reading it. And I'm glad you purchased that mask years ago and that its inspiration brought us this story. Thanks for taking the time to talk about Animus.

Antoine: My pleasure. Thank you so much for the chat. I hope that your readers seek out Animus.

Julie Danielson (Jules) conducts interviews and features of authors and illustrators at Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast, a children's literature blog primarily focused on illustration and picture books.

ANIMUS. Copyright © 2018 by Antoine Revoy. Published by First Second, New York. Illustration reproduced by permission of Antoine Revoy.